'We didn't expect to find bones'

Inside one Gaza family's nightmare

General view of area around al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City
A general view of the area surrounding Gaza City's al-Shifa Hospital after an Israeli raid on April 1 [AFP]
A general view of the area surrounding Gaza City's al-Shifa Hospital after an Israeli raid on April 1 [AFP]

The stench of death filled the halls of Gaza City’s Ahli Arab Hospital.

Bodies – many already decomposing – lay in heaps on the floor, next to injured patients writhing in pain.

Amid the chaos and suffering, one of Naifa Rizq al-Sawada’s relatives was methodically searching for signs of the family’s 92-year-old matriarch.

Naifa had gone missing more than two weeks earlier, in late March, after the Israeli army raided the family’s home near another Gaza City health complex, al-Shifa, and ordered everyone to leave.

Naifa hadn’t been seen since, and Israel’s intense military assault in northern Gaza had made gathering information on her whereabouts next to impossible.

"Did anyone arrive here that fits her description?" Naifa’s relative recalled asking hospital administrators after reaching Ahli Hospital, insisting on seeing any bodies resembling the elderly woman’s slender frame.

"'Uncover this one' – that's a man. 'Uncover this one' – that's a little girl. 'Uncover this one' – that's a child," said the relative, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity due to a fear of reprisals.

“I went to a different department, all the same – indescribable scenes that I will never forget.”

The al-Sawada family home in Gaza City
The al-Sawada family's home in Gaza City, in early April [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]

The family’s sombre search finally ended days later when, after returning to the seven-storey Gaza City building where Naifa was last seen, they uncovered charred bone fragments they believe belong to her.

"They gathered the bones in a shroud and dug a grave next to my nephew who was killed earlier in the war and buried Mum," Maha al-Nawati, Naifa's daughter who was displaced from northern Gaza last year, told Al Jazeera.

"Despite the pain, we were grateful and happy that we found her and gave her a proper burial ourselves."

Yet while the family says knowing that Naifa was no longer suffering brought them a sense of relief, the circumstances surrounding her death remain unclear.

Al Jazeera has spoken to witnesses, rights advocates and family members to try to piece together what happened to Naifa - a case experts say is a stark example of the brutality of Israel’s war on Gaza.

'Night of horror'

Inside a destroyed apartment in Gaza City
The aftermath of the Israeli army's raid on the al-Sawada family's home [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]
The aftermath of the Israeli army's raid on the al-Sawada family's home [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]

It was early on March 18 when the Israeli military stormed al-Shifa, the largest hospital complex in the Gaza Strip, in what was the second major assault on the facility since the war began on October 7.

Israel had long accused Hamas of using al-Shifa as an operational base - a claim firmly rejected by the Palestinian faction as well as doctors and other staff at the hospital.

Naifa and dozens of her relatives were trapped in their apartments across the street from al-Shifa, because they had been unable to leave safely when the army’s raid began.

The Israeli operation was spilling out beyond the confines of the hospital grounds and into the surrounding streets of Gaza City’s middle-class Remal neighbourhood.

The fear was palpable.

“On the night of March 20 ... there were soldiers and tanks in the street everywhere and they were already throwing incendiary ammunitions at the houses,” said Naifa’s grandson, Ayman Ayyad, who lives in Canada but had spoken to relatives who survived the raid.

“Some of the houses caught fire. They were shooting at everything that moves or makes a sound,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It was a night of horror.”

The next morning, the fourth day of the al-Shifa assault, soldiers entered the al-Sawada family’s building.

Forced separation

A man pushes a bycicle along as he walks amid building rubble in the devastated area around Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital
A man pushes a bicycle as he walks amid rubble in the devastated area around Gaza's al-Shifa Hospital on April 3 [AFP]
A man pushes a bicycle as he walks amid rubble in the devastated area around Gaza's al-Shifa Hospital on April 3 [AFP]

A witness described the events to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, their testimony matching what several family members, who heard firsthand accounts from people who survived the raid, also said happened that day.

Shortly before noon on March 21, Israeli troops stormed the ground floor of the building, which had no residential flats, and made their way up to the first floor where Naifa lived.

The soldiers blew off the doors to all four apartments on the first floor and divided the residents by age and gender into two of the homes: women and children in one, and men – stripped to their underwear – in the other, the witness said.

The troops then ordered the rest of the residents of the building – which had a total of 24 units – to come down to the two apartments on the first floor.

Naifa – who suffered from dementia and was unable to eat and move without assistance – was in her son's apartment, where the men were being held.

Naifa Rizq al-Sawada with a son
Naifa Rizq al-Sawada suffered from dementia [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]

The soldiers allowed one of her relatives to move her to a bedroom in the flat where the women and children had been ordered to congregate, the witness said.

Over the next 30 minutes, the women evacuated with the children and headed south from Gaza City towards Rafah at the direction of Israeli forces, according to family members.

When Naifa's daughter-in-law asked to retrieve the elderly woman from the bedroom, she was told to leave immediately, the family said.

When the daughter-in-law insisted, a soldier pointed a gun at her and ordered her to go downstairs and take the coastal road leading to southern Gaza.

"The issue is that you cannot argue with Israeli soldiers – killing is so easy to them," the relative who searched Ahli Hospital for al-Sawada told Al Jazeera about the pressure the women were under to leave the building.

The women and children left the first-floor apartment and began walking south. It was the last time they would see Naifa alive.

Asking for help

Inside the al-Sawada family's home in Gaza City
A view of the al-Sawada family's home in Gaza City after the Israeli raid [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]
A view of the al-Sawada family's home in Gaza City after the Israeli raid [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]

Initially, the family hoped Naifa had been evacuated from the building by the Israeli army and taken to al-Shifa or somewhere safe.

Relatives first tried to contact medics inside al-Shifa, but the situation was becoming increasingly chaotic there and no one had any relevant information about Naifa.

The facility was in the grips of what would be a deadly two-week Israeli army raid and was inaccessible. As was the apartment where Naifa was.

For months, the north had largely been cut off from the rest of the territory after Israel ordered residents to leave at the start of its war on Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians to date.

But more than 200,000 people stayed in the north – some refusing to leave their homes, others too afraid to leave amid reports of Israeli attacks on evacuation routes.

Aid groups have largely been unable to access the area, which faces dire shortages of water, food and medical supplies.

Despite the challenges, when Naifa’s family realised - hours after the raid - that the 92-year-old had been left behind and her whereabouts were unknown, they began a desperate search.

They contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose mission is to protect non-combatants and facilitate communication with warring parties during conflict.

The close relative who searched for Naifa said she informed the ICRC of what happened to the 92-year-old, requested information about her, and asked for her to be evacuated from any area of hostilities.

"You’re the Red Cross. Find out where she is and bring her to safety, whether she's at al-Shifa or in the building. Bring her to me. I'm better suited to take care of her," the woman recalled telling the ICRC.

She said she was told that the Israeli army would have to evacuate Naifa because the al-Shifa area had been declared a restricted military zone.

Days passed and the family did not hear back from the ICRC, the relative said - so she called the agency again.

"They told me: 'We’re calling the [Israeli] army, and they're not answering,'" she said.

"How is this possible?"

'Disregard for Palestinian life'

A woman reacts as she inspects damages at Al Shifa Hospital after Israeli forces withdrew from the hospital and the area around it following a two-week operation, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City April 1, 2024. REUTERS/Dawoud Abu Alkas
A woman reacts as she inspects damage at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on April 1 [File: Dawoud Abu Alkas/Reuters]
A woman reacts as she inspects damage at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on April 1 [File: Dawoud Abu Alkas/Reuters] (Reuters)

Sarah Davies, a spokesperson for the ICRC, told Al Jazeera the agency’s Gaza teams receive “dozens of calls daily asking for evacuations, for safety, for the whereabouts of a loved one”.

More than 7,000 missing person cases have been reported to ICRC hotlines, a number that matches the Gaza Government Media Office's tally of missing people in Gaza.

“Where we are able to support – where we have access to the location and can coordinate the response – we do so. Many other times we are not able to support,” Davies said in an email.

“We are aware of the devastating case of Mrs Al Sawada and can confirm we have been in contact with her family. While we do not know the exact circumstances of the situation, we were later informed by the family that Mrs Al Sawada's remains had been found.”

The ICRC did not provide more details when asked by Al Jazeera whether it contacted or received a response from the Israeli authorities on the case.

The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple calls, messages and emails over two weeks, requesting information about what happened to Naifa.

Farida Deif, the Canada director at Human Rights Watch who had been in contact with Naifa’s grandson Ayyad, said Israel has responsibilities to protect civilians under international law, as well as specific obligations towards people with disabilities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for instance, says states must take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict”.

In 2019, the UN Security Council passed a resolution urging protections for people with disabilities in conflict zones, “to allow and facilitate safe, timely and unimpeded humanitarian access to all people in need of assistance”.

HRW’s Deif said Naifa’s case highlights the fact that “the risks that all civilians in Gaza face from Israeli military operations are really multiplied for the elderly and people with disabilities”.

Ayman Ayyad with a sign demanding answers after the disappearance of his grandmother
Ayyad (pictured) and his family have demanded answers over the death of his grandmother, Naifa [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]

“This woman had Alzheimer’s and dementia, was unable to walk unassisted, to eat, drink. She needed support from her family members even just while she was sleeping; they would turn her from one side to another to prevent bed sores,” Deif said.

“In so many ways, what we’ve seen is this sort of disregard for Palestinian life, which has been really staggering,” she told Al Jazeera.

“All Palestinians, including this elderly grandmother, have the right to live in dignity in their homes. They also have the right to leave for their own security and to return in safety and dignity.

“But what we’ve witnessed in many cases is a sort of intentional deprivation by the Israeli government of services that are critical for the survival of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Similar accounts

people wearing green and orange uniforms carry a body in a white bag outside a destroyed building
Palestinian forensic and civil defence workers recover human remains on the grounds of al-Shifa Hospital on April 8 [AFP]
Palestinian forensic and civil defence workers recover human remains on the grounds of al-Shifa Hospital on April 8 [AFP]

Israel has largely blocked humanitarian groups and outside journalists from reaching northern Gaza, making it especially challenging to get information about the situation on the ground.

But reports of what happened at al-Shifa and the surrounding Remal neighbourhood during the Israeli raid have emerged in recent weeks.

Some of these testimonials closely resemble what witnesses and family members told Al Jazeera about the attack on the al-Sawadas’ building.

A Palestinian man named Ghassan Riad Qunita told the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor the Israeli army stormed his family’s home near al-Shifa on the morning of March 19.

“They gathered everyone inside, divided the men and women, made the men take off their clothes, and tortured them, except my father, because he was too old,” Qunita said.

The Israeli army ordered the women, his father, and two other elderly members of his extended family to move south but because his father was unable to walk, Quinta said, they were forced to leave him behind.

“The soldier ordered them to move on and leave him, threatening to shoot them if they didn’t,” he said. His father’s body was discovered on April 8 at al-Shifa.

Naifa's family found her remains on that same day, April 8, exactly one week after Israeli forces withdrew from the area.

'We didn't expect to find bones'

GAZA CITY, GAZA - APRIL 24: Palestinians carry humanitarian aid boxes, dropped from a plane as the Israeli attacks continue in Gaza City, Gaza on April 24, 2024. ( Dawoud Abo Alkas - Anadolu Agency )
Palestinians carry humanitarian aid in Gaza City on April 24 [File: Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians carry humanitarian aid in Gaza City on April 24 [File: Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu Agency]

Finally able to return to the building on April 1, the family searched the apartment where Naifa was last seen but did not turn up anything concrete.

"We were looking for her dress or body, and we didn't find it," the relative who helped with the search said.

She added that they did not expect her to be in the building, especially after hearing conflicting accounts about Naifa being evacuated.

"We also thought that the Israeli army had taken her out of the apartment. We focused our search outside the building."

Still, after exhausting all search options at local hospitals, the family went back to the building for clues – though nearly all of the apartments in the building had been burned, making it difficult to identify anything inside.

Palestinians rest at the rubble of a residential building
Palestinians rest in the rubble of a residential building destroyed in Israeli strikes, in northern Gaza, on April 22 [Mahmoud Issa/Reuters]

Images shared with Al Jazeera of the building after the family was able to return showed widespread damage inside the flats. The walls are completely charred, rubble covers the floors and the furniture is destroyed.

An image of the outside of the building showed what looked like burn marks on the beige exterior, around more than a dozen windows. The front doors of the building are completely black.

During a second search on April 8, they found what appeared to be Naifa's remains.

"We didn't expect to find bones," the relative said.

Calls for investigation

people stand in front of a blackened building with the words surgery department
Palestinians inspect the damage outside Gaza's al-Shifa Hospital after the Israeli army raid on April 1 [AFP]
Palestinians inspect the damage outside Gaza's al-Shifa Hospital after the Israeli army raid on April 1 [AFP]

The full account of what happened to Naifa – and the cause of her death – might never be known.

The family suspects, based on where her remains were found in the bedroom of their first-floor apartment, that she was curled up in the foetal position when she died.

Another question relatives say they may never have an answer for, is why the Israeli forces who stormed their building did not let them evacuate Naifa.

The relative said the Israeli soldiers did not say why they barred the daughter-in-law from taking Naifa with her when she left the building.

"She couldn't reason with the military at that moment. The guns were out quickly. They would have shot her. They don't care.

"They were there on a mission to take revenge," she told Al Jazeera. "And I’m certain that each soldier is acting according to his own whims ... The [Israeli] army was just unleashed - 'Destroy, burn and kill as much as you can; no one will hold you accountable.'"

Despite its duties under international law to protect and provide for the needs of civilians in occupied territory, such as Gaza, Israel’s “legal obligations seem to be routinely violated” during the war, said HRW’s Deif.

She called for an independent inquiry into what happened to Naifa, as well as other allegations of human rights abuses.

“This case, along with countless others, underscores the urgent need for justice and for the International Criminal Court to accelerate its investigation into the serious crimes committed during this conflict,” Deif told Al Jazeera.

Yet for Naifa’s family, while burying the elderly woman gave them a measure of closure, they have little hope of accountability.

"I talk to you and my heart is squeezing in pain. I want the world to see what happened to us," the relative said.

"From what I'm seeing, there is no justice on this Earth."

Source: Al Jazeera